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Vitamin D Cancer Prevention and Other New Uses

March 2006

By Russell Martin

Lowering Gingivitis Risk

High blood levels of a vitamin D metabolite are associated with a decreased risk of the gum disease gingivitis, according to a recent report from the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Researchers at Boston University analyzed data from 6,700 nonsmokers, aged 13-90+, from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey.30

The investigators analyzed blood levels of 25-hydroxyvitamin D and assessed the participants’ gums for the presence of gingivitis, an inflammatory condition marked by redness and tendency to bleed. Participants with the highest blood levels of 25-hydroxyvitamin D were the least likely to display signs of gingivitis. In fact, the association between vitamin D levels and gingivitis incidence appeared to be linear over the entire range of blood levels. This association was similar even in relation to other factors such as gender, ethnic groups, and age.30

The scientists noted that vitamin D may reduce susceptibility to gingivitis by exerting anti-inflammatory effects, and postulated that gingivitis may provide a useful clinical model for further investigation into the anti-inflammatory effects of vitamin D.30

Promoting Bone Health

One of vitamin D’s greatest contributions to health is promoting strong, healthy bones. Vitamin D deficiency is associated with skeletal diseases characterized by weak bones, such as rickets in children and osteomalacia and osteoporosis in adults.22

Vitamin D combined with calcium supplementation is widely known to help decrease postmenopausal bone loss and prevent osteoporosis.31,32 Furthermore, vitamin D combined with calcium can help decrease the risk of hip and non-vertebral fractures.32

Osteoporosis prevention may optimally begin early in life. In a retrospective study, investigators compared prepubescent females who received oral vitamin D in infancy to those who did not. Girls who received vitamin D had significantly increased bone mineral density compared to those who did not receive the vitamin.33

While commonly thought of as a female disease, osteoporosis affects men as well. Osteoporosis and associated fractures are increasingly prevalent in men, and mortality rates following major fractures are higher in men than in women.34 As with women, osteoporosis prevention in men should begin in youth and continue in adulthood, using vitamin D, calcium supplementation, and physical activity. Bone density screening may be an important tool in assessing osteoporosis risk.

While early detection and monitoring of osteoporosis have advanced greatly, most osteoporosis patients are not treated for the cause of their fractures, nor are those who are at most risk being placed on preventive medical programs.35 In light of the proven cost effectiveness of osteoporosis prevention using vitamin D, calcium, and weight-bearing exercise, this apparent disregard is highly alarming. Enormous sums of money are spent on osteoporosis-specific pharmaceutical drug development and marketing, yet millions of Americans do not receive adequate preventive treatment that costs literally cents a day.

Alleviating Musculoskeletal Pain

Low levels of vitamin D are associated with persistent, non-specific musculoskeletal pain, according to investigators at the University of Minnesota Medical School. Re-searchers conducted a cross-sectional study of 150 patients, aged 10-65, who presented to a primary care clinic over the course of two years with the complaint of persistent, non-specific musculoskeletal pain. Serum 25-hydroxyvitamin D levels were analyzed to assess vitamin D status.36

Ninety-three percent of the patients demonstrated deficient levels of vitamin D, and 28% were considered severely deficient. Five patients had vitamin D levels that were too low to detect. Particularly severe vitamin D deficiency was noted in young women, East African patients, and African-Americans.36

The research team concluded that all patients—regardless of gender or age—with chronic, non-specific musculoskeletal pain are at high risk of suffering from unrecognized vitamin D deficiency. Since osteomalacia is a known cause of chronic, generalized pain, doctors should screen all patients with such symptoms for vitamin D deficiency.36 Vitamin D expert Dr. Michael Holick of Boston University has expressed a similar view, noting that vitamin D deficiency is often misdiagnosed as fibromyalgia.37


In recent months, scientists have discovered that vitamin D may have applications in preventing and managing numerous health conditions, including:

Rheumatoid arthritis. This inflammatory condition causes swelling, immobility, and joint pain. Recent reports indicate that vitamin D deficiency in adults is associated with an elevated risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis.40

Vitamin D may also be a crucial therapeutic tool for helping individuals receiving corticosteroid treatment for rheumatoid arthritis to maintain optimal bone mass.41

Hypertension. Investigators note that mounting evidence suggests that vitamin D deficiency may increase the risk of hypertension.42 A recent study identified a possible mechanism by which vitamin D may support healthy blood pressure. Researchers at the University of Chicago found that analogs of vitamin D inhibit the expression of renin, a kidney-produced hormone involved in the pathogenesis of hypertension, in both laboratory and animal studies. This suggests that vitamin D could affect blood pressure by inhibiting renin, which helps regulate blood pressure.43

Skin disorders. Some investigators believe that based on the distribution of vitamin D receptors throughout the body, vitamin D may have potential therapeutic applications in managing numerous skin disorders, including actinic keratosis, seborrheic dermatitis, and photoaging.44 One of the most troublesome and difficult-to-treat skin conditions is psoriasis, which is marked by patches of itchy, flaky skin. Both ultraviolet B radiation and topical application of the active form of vitamin D have been found to benefit patients who suffer from psoriasis. Scientists believe that vitamin D’s antiproliferative and immune-regulating activities may be responsible for these benefits.45,46

Metabolic syndrome. A precursor to type II diabetes, metabolic syndrome is associated with an increased risk of heart disease. A recent study analyzing data from more than 10,000 participants found that increased dietary intake of vitamin D was associated with a decreased risk of developing metabolic syndrome. Calcium intake also exerted a protective effect against metabolic syndrome in this study of middle-aged and older women.47

Averting stroke. A recent study examined how dietary intake and serum levels of vitamins and minerals influenced stroke risk in elderly subjects. More than 700 men and women were followed for up to 10 years. Low intake of vitamin D and low serum levels of its active form significantly predicted an increased risk for stroke, even after adjusting for factors such as age, gender, and smoking.48

Preventing tooth loss. Abundant intake of vitamin D is associated with a decreased risk of tooth loss, according to a recent study conducted in Japan. Researchers found that individuals in their seventies with relatively higher intakes of certain nutrients—including protein, vitamin D, and B vitamins—demonstrated a reduced incidence of missing teeth compared to people who consumed less of these nutrients.49

Supporting lung health. People with higher levels of vitamin D in the bloodstream demonstrate better lung function than their counterparts with lower vitamin D levels, according to a recent report. Researchers examined 14,000 participants and found that people with higher vitamin D levels could inhale and exhale substantially more air, as measured by forced vital capacity and forced expiratory volume. Though further studies are needed, these findings suggest that vitamin D might benefit smokers, asthmatics, and others with compromised respiratory function.50

Preventing Falls in the Elderly

In elderly adults, falls occur frequently and are associated with significant morbidity and mortality.38 Research suggests that vitamin D may help prevent these dangerous falls.

Cross-sectional studies have shown that elderly adults with higher serum levels of vitamin D demonstrate a lower number of falls, as well as increased muscle strength.39 One meta-analysis found that vitamin D supplementation helped reduce the risk of falling by more than 20%.38 A randomized, controlled trial found that three months of supplementing with 1200 mg of calcium and 800 IU of vitamin D3 daily reduced the risk of falling by 49% in adults in a long-term geriatric care facility.39


Vitamin D is typically well tolerated in adults at doses up to 2000 IU daily, with some research indicating that even higher levels up to 10,000 IU daily may be used safely without adverse effects.22,53 Excess vitamin D can lead to symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, poor appetite, constipation, and weakness.22 Vitamin D is contraindicated in individuals with elevated blood calcium levels or hypercalcemia.21 Individuals with kidney disease and people who use digoxin or other cardiac glycoside drugs should consult a physician before using supplemental vitamin D.21


Once considered little more than a compound that promotes healthy bones, vitamin D is now recognized as an important weapon in the fight against cancer. Its many other health-promoting effects include protecting muscle strength and modulating autoimmune disease. Optimizing vitamin D status through supplementation and prudent sun exposure should be a cornerstone of every health maintenance program.


To maintain strong bones, older adults need more vitamin D than current guidelines recommend, according to a just-released report. While the Institute of Medicine suggests 400-600 IU of vitamin D daily, the American Medical Women’s Association (AMWA) advises that all men and women over the age of 50 should consume 800-1000 IU of vitamin D each day.51

The AMWA noted that sunscreen, protective clothing, and lack of time spent outdoors may contribute to older adults’ decreased synthesis of vitamin D. Fatty fish and fortified milk or juice may provide dietary sources of vitamin D, though supplemental sources may be the easiest way for Americans to boost their vitamin D consumption.51

While calcium has traditionally been considered the key to promoting bone strength, recent studies suggest vitamin D intake and exercise may be no less important in preventing osteoporosis.51,52 In fact, a study published last year demonstrated that serum levels of vitamin D, rather than dietary calcium intake, was most intimately connected with optimal calcium balance in the body, as measured by serum parathyroid hormone.52

Patients should consult with their personal physicians to determine how much vitamin D best supports their unique health needs.


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